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FilmsAsia: Asian film reviews
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   Ghost in the Shell  


Ghost In The Shell

Reviewed by Yoshi Yukino

Japanese Title: Kokaku kidotai
Director: Oshii Mamoru
Writing credits: Kazunori Ito, Masamune Shirow (comic)
Language: Japanese
Country: Japan
Genre: Animation Science Fiction
Release Year: 1995
Runtime: 82 min
Rating *** (out of four stars)

When Ghost in the Shell was released in 1995, it was probably one of the most eagerly-awaited full-length anime (Japanese animation) films since Katsuhiro Otomo's 1988 cyberpunk hit, Akira. Jointly financed by Manga Video, Kodansha, and Bandai Visuals, Ghost in the Shell became the first anime project to receive financial support outside Japan, and was subsequently launched simultaneously on both sides of the Pacific - in Japanese and English. Based on Shirow Masamune's manga (comics) series, the film was directed by Mamoru Oshii, one of Japan's top anime directors.

Major Motoko Kusanagi is an elite officer in the Section 9 security force, and along with fellow-cyborg Bateau and the mostly human Togusa, she is ordered to track down an illusive computer-criminal known only as the Puppet Master, a hacker who can hack into the minds of cyborgs. But the conspiracy unravels after Kusangi realizes that the Puppet Master is in fact a renegade program belonging to one of the ministries which claims it's born "in a sea of information." As the ministries try to outmaneuver each other in a political game to retrieve the Puppet Master, the latter now turns its attention to Kusanagi. When the Major begins to question her own existence as a cyborg, the Puppet Master offers her a merger which will bring about a new life. This is where the story derives its name from - the 'ghost' being the soul a cyborg feels inside his or her shell (body).

Masamune's Ghost in the Shell is part political thriller, part social satire that access society in the digital age. Those familiar with his comics are quick to acknowledge the footnotes he attaches to his stories - some of them taking up chapters even. Ghost in the Shell is a difficult manga to read, made easier only by Masamune's brand of black humour.

Ghost in the Shell the movie isn't so much an Oshii's adaptation of Masamune's comics, but rather the director's own vision of it. Like in his Patlabor movies, Oshii brings to Ghost in the Shell a shade of noir that's become his trademark - tight camera angles, heavy shadow outlines, depressing colors, and a story that plods ponderously along.

Which is precisely the problem, depending on whether you like Oshii's style of direction or not. Too much of Ghost in the Shell involves either Kusanagi soul-searching, or long spells of dialogue off-screen while audiences are left staring at the backdrop. To be fair, Oshii's unique directional style does give many of the scenes a kind of poetry, but a less-appreciative audience might end up squirming uncomfortably in their seats. However, when the action does take place, it's often intense and gripping in ways many Hollywood action films aren't. Blood splatters across the screen, heads get blown off, but the violence is so well integrated into the action they don't seem too gratuitous.

The immense detail in the animation is breathtaking (even by today's standards) - from the dark and moody backdrops of Hong Kong in the 21st century, to the gunfights that punctuate the film. Kenji Kawaii's ethereal score also lends to Ghost in the Shell the meditative feel the story needs.

In short, Ghost in the Shell is a technically brilliant and stylish animation, with a thought-provoking story you'd not find in western animation. Unfortunately, it's also a film too entrenched in its genre for its own good - with a plot so murky you might need a second viewing to fully understand it.

I'm not saying Ghost in the Shell is a poor production - on the contrary, it's a marvelous aural and visual treat. Yet as art often does, Ghost in the Shell will win many admirers but not converts. Neither is it likely to convince the west that Japanese animation's a lot more than robots, babes, and sex. And when you consider the amount of money poured into making this film a blockbuster, that's self-indulgence.

All said, Ghost in the Shell is still worth the watch if you've always wondered how Terminator 2 or Johnny Mnemonic might have turned out if animated. Without any doubt this a great work of art - it's how entertaining it is as a film that's subjective.

Good: Features some of the best animation in a full-length feature; Oshii's pacing and style, together with Kawaii's ethereal score, makes this film an experience.

Bad: The pace of the show is unforgivingly slow, made more noticeable by the lack of Masamune's trademark humour from the manga series.

Verdict: This is an art film through and through, and is another excellent anime showcase to woo all those cyberpunk techies out there. The problem is, if you're not one, sitting through this movie can be a pain -- in the spot where the sun doesn't shine.